Welcome to Lifers, a feature in which Eater interviews the men and women who have worked in the restaurant and bar industry for the better part of their lives, sharing their stories and more.
The lunch crowd starts to build around noon at this seemingly far-flung burger stand in an industrial district in San Fernando Valley's Van Nuys. Contractors, police officers, office denizens, and students congregate for the siren call of burgers grilling on a steel flattop that's almost ninety years old. Thankfully, Bill Elwell of Bill & Hiroko's, isn't quite that old, just a mere 86 years, and the continuous proprietor of this burger stand since the mid 1960's.
That's almost a fifty year stretch for the World War II veteran, who once drove after-hours taxis and managed a commercial linen manufacturer before buying this humble restaurant. Elwell scrapes the steel grill continuously, its precious real estate holding some twelve burgers during the lunch and afternoon rush. His partner Hiroko Wilcox roams around, taking orders, prepping burgers, and packing them away for to-go customers. Nearly every burger here gets placed and seasoned on the grill by Bill himself. The flat quarter-pound patties shrink significantly, just large enough to nestle into toasted white buns.
Most patties get a small rectangle of American cheese before being piled onto cut iceberg lettuce, freshly sliced tomatoes, pickles, ketchup, mustard, and mayo. Sometimes there's crispy, redolent bacon, and other times it's viscous, dark chili. There's nothing flashy or especially amazing about these burgers, and that's the point. They're just very well-made classic burgers with perfectly seasoned patties and the very essence of America. Eater chats with Elwell just before the lunch rush, gleaning the wisdom and stories of one of the oldest living burger men still working in America.
When did you start this burger stand? There was a burger stand already here. I used to work at the linen company nearby and used to come here for fifteen years as a customer. And then in 1965 I bought it. The building's on a ground lease, but I bought the building.
How has it been grilling burgers for so many years? I don't need to work here any more. I've made enough money to retire, I don't need any more. I work here because of them (referring to the others working with him). I don't want any more business. You've been by here in the afternoon, it doesn't stop! As long as the others get paid I don't give a shit.
A customer tells Bill that there was a show yesterday on Travel Channel called Burgerland that featured five burgers in L.A., and Bill wasn't on the show, even though he should have been. Bill retorts by saying, "I don't want any more business anyway."
What's your favorite way to make a burger? What's your perfect burger look like? Whichever way I make the burger, that's the best way. But I like when people get double cheeseburgers with everything. That's what I'm famous for, I think.
It's been said that you eat whole patties raw. Why do you do that? I eat them raw. I do that to bug the customers. If they complain that the burgers aren't done enough it pisses me off so I show 'em. Nothing's wrong with my meat — it's fresh. I get it from Northridge, nearby here, and it's ground every day. I don't even want to get meat from L.A. Other places don't know where they get their meat from. I know where my meat's from.
Do you have kids or family? I was born in Ventura and grew up around here. I've been married five times. I have kids that have married and divorced. Two of my ex-wives are dead. I didn't kill them, they died.
How did you meet Hiroko? I met her at a bowling alley here in Van Nuys more than thirty years ago, before her kids were born. Now the building is gone. We used to bowl there.
What about some funny customer experiences? Years ago, there was this one time these two gentlemen ordered two cheeseburgers with everything on a Saturday when I was working by myself. After I started cooking the burgers and putting them together, they started complaining about how they didn't like mayonnaise or pickles or other toppings. So then I "accidentally" flipped them onto the ground, and then put them back on the grill to see their reaction. They left.
Who are some of your favorite customers? All of them are local. I've known them for a long time. One of them that's eating here today (pointing across the stand) was here on day one when I opened. A lot of people try to get their burgers in a specific way or have a few things on it, but I say put everything on it and forget it. People complain about having too much mayonnaise.
Did you think you would have been doing this your whole life? I've only had about three jobs in my life. I was in the Army during World War II. I started working at a car dealer in Ventura when I came back. Then I drove taxicabs late at night and took the drunks home — I liked that, and I made a lot of money. Back then the cab fare started at 30 cents, and cost 15 cents a mile. Nowadays it's $2.75 just to turn the meter on. I did that for a while and then started working at Mission Linen Company.
How old is the grill? It came with the building. It's been here since the '20s or '30s. The same cash register is here too. It's so old that you can't ring something up more than $5.99. I've had to replace all the refrigeration though.
The wind starts picking up and Bill's forced to close some of the front windows so that the flame on the grill doesn't go out. Then customers start coming in droves, a dozen or so putting in their orders. He quickly gets to work, slapping patties on the grill — just another day in the life of burger man Bill Elwell.